Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Exercise Room

I've pledged in the past to get active. "I'm going to be a triathlete!" I've crowed, "I'm going to take up marathons!" This usually goes hand in hand with a silent vow to lose 30 pounds and become one of those flat-stomached women who have ropy arm veins and assassin's eyes. I've always wanted to have that kind of determination, but usually I end up on the couch with chocolate drool on my pajama pants and the DVD menu music looping endlessly as I doze.

This past year, I had surgery, skated dangerously close to abject poverty (and the ice is getting thinner as we speak), recovered from an eating disorder, watched my parent's relationship reconfigure itself into something new and unexplored, worked a miserable job, quit that miserable job, and continue to deal with the deaths of people close to me and close to those around me. It's been a stressful 12 months. I've also sighed some big sighs as I've watched myself go from looking pretty normal, to post-surgery skinny, to stress-induced fat. This has coincided with that moment in one's late twenties when it takes more than 20 minutes of jogging to get into shape: my metabolism has slowed down, you guys.

I've never had a really normal body experience. When I was a child, I was normal/skinny, but when I hit puberty, everything ballooned: my hair, my breasts, my skin, and my body. I was unprepared for boobs. I was unprepared for acne. When I was thirteen, I caught whooping cough, an antique disease that made me cough so hard I would barf. Then came over a decade of craziness ("Chapter 9: Eating and Barfing"). I'm not going to get into that, mostly because it's private and painful, and also because I don't want to be one of those "tsk-tsk-instructions!" people. Every year or so, the teen magazines run their concerned article about eating disorders, which, if you're damaged and desperate, can read like a how-to manual. That's not my scene. Suffice it to say that I was nuts, it was bad, and I only really stopped because it occurred to me that, if I kept it up, I was going to die.

Lighthearted! Anyway, this isn't really about that - it's about why, at the age of 27, I'm finally trying to develop a "normal" relationship with my body. In the past, I've exercised so that I can loathe my body a little less: if I'm two pounds lighter on Friday than I was on Monday, I'm obviously a better person. This, apparently, isn't really how things work. Most people exercise to feel good, to lose weight, to get strong, or to tone up. I was using it as a shield, as an attempt to fend off the self-loathing. I mean, damn, for a while I looked awesome. But, like any disorder, I couldn't sustain it.

I just got back from an 8-day canoe trip, which was difficult in a number of ways. It was definitely physically demanding. After the first day, I was exhausted and my arms were sore - I can only imagine how my boyfriend, who was steering and paddling, was feeling. But by the eighth day, we were able to keep pace with the other canoes, and my arms weren't achy at the end of the day. We were eating lighter meals than I usually do in the city, and I felt healthy and fit. Again, I vowed to get in shape, and I would use those eight days as the kick-start to a healthier lifestyle.

It's tough, though, for me not to fold that into some weird, controlling behaviour. I want to just be normal: to have a range of pants, from "skinny" to "premenstrual bloat," that I can wear without judging myself. I'd like to be fit. That means I can use (and see) my muscles, but I'm not telling myself, "I'm only worthwhile if I'm losing weight." Learning to accept my womanly curves - seriously, if my breasts were real estate, they would be a sprawling country farm - and recognize that I'm not going to be movie-star skinny. I mean, at least not without some serious backsliding into some pretty creepy territory.

Anyway. I guess this post, which started out as more of a light-hearted romp into the exercise room, has evolved into some group-therapy business. That's fine. For the first time in my life, I see the value of getting fit for the sake of my body, rather than trying to appease that voice in my head that says "People only like you when you're small." And that it's taken me a really long time to get here, and it feels a little like a mountain ledge, but I seem to have developed a knack for dealing with hard things (or trying to deal with them, anyway - some things are harder than others), so I want to use that talent. Bodies are weird, and exercise is boring and hard, and I appreciate my gym buddies and my encouraging friends. And now that you, dear reader, know the full scoop, you can join the ranks of the gym buddies and encouraging friends, or you can keep your mouths shut when I flex my underdeveloped shoulder muscles at you and crow "Aren't I coming along nicely?" Because the answer is yes, we're all coming along nicely.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Reading A-List

I love a good reading list. I know I'm not alone on this one - the popularity of features like's Listmania! and the scores of end-of-year must-read lists demonstrates that most of us like a curated experience when it comes to reading. That's not to say that I don't enjoy wandering through bookstores. The pleasures there are of the unexpected and hidden finds - a reissue of a book your dad once recommended, or a new book by a favourite author. Once you get past the tables of prominently displayed best-sellers and into the meatier, denser shelves, there are literally hundred of thousands of titles to pick up, mull over, and maybe even read.

Back during my interminable undergraduate degree, one of my favourite pleasures used to be, in the first class of the term, receiving the syllabus for the course. The book list always felt like it held such promise; as an English major, I trafficked mostly in novels, so each syllabus would usually contain a few critical texts and then a stack of fiction books that I might enjoy as a civilian, or that might be an academic slog through page upon page of Olde Englishe lunacy.

Early on, I rejected the stale canonical babblings of dead white guys, and instead enrolled in every genre class I could find. I pored over detective fiction from the 1920s, Caribbean bildungsromans, a truly dreadful science fiction book that should have had an editor's scythe through some (nay, most) of its 800+ pages, and Daisy Miller. I read comic books and Jewish fiction - lots of overlap there - Thomas Pynchon and Shelley Jackson. The books piled up around me, making built-in shelving a requirement for any new living space I moved into. Some of them went ignored and unread. I was a student more interested in the idea of learning than the actual legwork, and usually six weeks into the term, I was too distracted by my own latent meltdowns to focus on The Fairie Queene.

I just finished Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, in which he dissects the works that most influenced him, both as a writer and as a human, and then talks about his own creative methods. Some of the stories that he loves include Sherlock Holmes adventures, His Dark Materials, the myth of The Golem of Prague, and pulpy mid-1980s comics books. It was assembled, it seems, as a sort of reader's map to his wildly successful 2000 book The Amazing Adeventures of Kavalier and Clay, but it also includes an extensive and thoughtful index of his influences, an index that also functions as a de facto reading list.

As a lazy sort of writer myself, I wonder what my Maps and Legends would be about. Working from childhood, I would be a dirty liar if I didn't own up to my soft spot for The Babysitter's Club - but maybe that fontanelle helped me side-step that embarrassing wasteland known as chick-lit. I love Stephen King novels, but I've recognized that his writing is often dreadful; people read him because they want a good yarn, not a masterful literary voice. I've picked up dozens of comic books, essay collection, and short story anthologies because I love the challenges and beauties of short-form writing. It's not likely that I'll ever pull a Chabon and write a gorgeous, multi-layered epic like Kavalier and Clay, but I've written hundred of essays on this website. The high-brow literary classics I was taught in school rarely got under my skin the way science fiction, horror and fantasy did; in university, it was a struggle to read things like Shamela, because I knew there were other, more relevant books for me out there, just waiting to be read.

On my desk right now, I have a to-do list that includes some mid- to macro-level items: nestled among "make a doctor's appointment" and "laundry" is "make a summer reading list," a task that I've put off because I don't want to have that bit of pleasure come to an end. I know it'll include some Chabon-recommended books, but also delightful books I bought months ago that got lost in the job-stress black hole, gifts from my boyfriend, loaners from friends, magazine articles, re-reads, and false starts. I want to order it so that there are breaks - my re-read of The Crying of Lot 49 isn't immediately after my false-started The Pale King because, while I like both books, there's only so much experimental fiction one's brain can really take.

But mostly, I'm trying to capture some of that promise - the idea that every book has the potential to teach me something, whether it's how to write better, how to live better, or just how to scare the everliving fuck out of myself at 12:30 AM on a Thursday night.